Books: a memoir with birds; plus a brag

Mr. Troyer, the bluebird of the title essay, painted by Julie Zickafoose

I am not a birdwatcher. After a childhood of being dragged out of bed at dawn to visit places as delightful as the local sewage lagoon to scope out rare bird, I gravitated to plants. They keep civilized hours and never migrate to sewage lagoons.

Still, birdwatchers carry on the traditions of amateur naturalists, recording what they see and thus adding to our knowledge about the communities of species that make this planet such a fascinating and habitable place.

Which is why when my editors at Story Circle Book Reviews asked if I wanted to review Julie Zickafoose’s new memoir-with-birds, The Bluebird Effect, I didn’t hesitate. Zickafoose is a prolific bird artist, as well as the author of three books on nature nearby. Here’s part of my review:

“Each chapter in this memoir of a life spent observing, drawing, and rehabilitating birds is named for a particular species of bird and a topic epitomized by Zickafoose’s encounter with them. One of my favorite chapters “Carolina Wren,” subtitled “Kitchen Sink Ornithology,” serves as an astute introduction for the author. As a fellow freelance writer who works from home, I laughed out loud at the beginning, which expresses all the hopeful optimism of our isolated creative lives,

Living in the middle of nowhere, working from my home studio, I have to confess that I’m fond of email. I’ve got an all-but-defunct account that I check sporadically, just to make sure there’s not something important buried in the piles of spam that drove me away from it in the first place. And there, glimmering in the dross [one day], was a week-old nugget … inviting me to show some paintings at an upcoming ornithological meeting.

“And then Zickafoose’s self-doubt sets in,

My first reaction? He must be thinking of someone else. I’m no ornithologist; I’m a naturalist, a bird painter. … Then I sat back and thought for a bit. Well, maybe I am an ornithologist. I do study birds, each and every day, in between meeting illustration and writing deadlines and fetching Popsicles for the kids. There’s a pair of binoculars in every room of the house, sometimes three, and they are as necessary to my everyday life as water and air. I just had to interrupt this sentence to train them on a female Blackburnian warbler…. To find a pen and write that arrival down in my nature notes. This, I think, is the heart of science. Seeing a Blackburnian warbler is nice, but it really doesn’t mean much unless I write it down. (May 18, 2009. Arrived: Female Blackburnian in the birches. Had seen only males until today.)

“There is the heart of the book: Zickafoose is a thoughtful and intelligent observer who writes things down. Without that–no matter what her subject, whether memoir or mystery, she would have no material to work with, no stories to tell, no conclusions about the life of birds and the lives of we humans who share the planet with them.” (Read the whole review here.)

A sphinx moth pollinating Rocky Mountain penstemon in Monarch Spur Park


And now the brag: The day before leaving for Washington state, I attended Plant Select Day at Denver Botanic Gardens, a gathering of folks who breed and grow plants adapted to our difficult climate, and those who design and maintain landscapes devoted to native and regionally adapted plants.

Every year, the Plant Select program honors a few parks and people who do an exceptional job of working with and featuring these special plants.

This year’s “Showcase Garden Award” went to—ta da!—Monarch Spur Park, the tenth-acre “pocket park” I designed and still tend at the end of our once-blighted industrial block. It was cited as “a little gem” and an excellent example of “doing a lot with a little”–that is, a little land and a little money (the park was built with a small grant and has no budget for annual operations; it is maintained by volunteers).

Thank you, Pat Hayward, executive director of Plant Select, and Panayoti Kelaidis of Denver Botanic Gardens, for recognizing Monarch Spur Park and the extraordinary community of Salida that brought it to life!

The park site “before”

Here are a few shots of the park (named for the railroad line that once ran along our block):






And “after,” quite a transformation!












The interpretive sign kiosk at Monarch Spur Park, designed and built by a talented sculptor who I miss very much










Prince’s plume, a native wildflower common in the redrock desert parts of Colorado